African Giant, Global Midget
It’s 11 pm on a wet and blustery Saturday night in a coastal city on the west coast of Ireland. Near the Waterfront in the city stands a non-descript pub similar to the hundred others that dot the city. Inside are the usual late-night revellers enjoying their favourite tipple. The generally older clientele means a lot of Guinness is on display. All this seems fairly usual.
Enter a quartet of young people who stand out on entering the pub. A clear group of misfits, it’s hard to tell what it is they’re doing in this old people’s pub. The group, a Congolese male, a Spanish female, a Venezuelan female and an Afro-Cuban male, make their way to the back of the pub ignoring the loud revellers downing their tipple with soft Irish folk music playing in the background. They disappear behind a double door and soon get ushered into a different world.
In the centre of the room they enter, a wooden dancefloor bears the reflection of strobe lights that bounce around the walls and the floors. Several dancers sway rhythmically and methodically to loud music coming out of speakers that surround the dance floor. The quartet proceeds to take off their jackets and change their footwear into something more appropriate for what is about to take place. The music ends and the floor empties out.
‘Azucar!’ the singer belts out from the speakers as the dancers rush to partner up and fill up the dance floor in an instant. They dance energetically with such joy and deep, heartfelt rapture. The singer is Celia Cruz who, despite being dead for the last 17 years, fills thousands of dance floors with millions of feet across the world once the sound of her majestic voice comes alive on a speaker. From dark-skinned to fair-skinned, Portuguese and English speaker, rich or poor, many are moved by the voice of Celia Cruz. I’ve personally witnessed this happen to people of all shapes, sizes and inclinations on four different continents.
Celia Cruz was a 2-time Grammy-winning Cuban singer who always paid homage to her African roots. Her career spanned 60 years and produced several hit records and classics that continue to wow millions till this day. She sang with the famed Fania all-stars for a time and toured the world over. In one instance, they took their show to Zaire in 1974 before an 80,000 strong crowd in a music festival organized as part of the famed Ali and Foreman rumble in the jungle.
Her 1967 cover of Guantanamera is probably one of her more well-known songs to many Nigerians.
What many are however oblivious to is her great popularity and success. She defined the salsa genre and went on to be dubbed the queen of Salsa and indeed Latin music. In 2016 she won a Grammy Lifetime award for her outstanding contribution to music. Her life and music were inspirational to many.
One such person she inspired is the Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo who in July of 2019 released a tribute album to her idol, Celia Cruz. This album recently won a Grammy in the world music category to the chagrin of many Nigerians who felt that Burna boy, the African Giant, deserved the award more. Being a fan of Burna boy’s music myself, I rooted for him and hoped he’d win. I, however, hadn’t looked too closely at the nominations list. On hearing Kidjo had won with ‘Celia’, I thought to myself ‘what was so special about her album?’ So I loaded up the album on Spotify and waited to be wowed and boy was I wowed. This was not even a contest.
‘Cucal cuala’ Kidjo calls out in the first track in typical Cruz’s fashion yet distinctive as to know it isn’t her but Kidjo. Kidjo a native French speaker, sings flawlessly in Cruz’s native Spanish not ever letting this fact on. Early on in the song, it’s clear that this is not just an ordinary cover but a masterful fusion of African rhythm with the Cuban music Cruz sang.
The second track on the album, ‘la vida es un Carnaval’, is one I’ve danced to countless times. This time, however, the re-imagined Africanness of the music stands out early on and permeates the whole song. The rest of the album flows similarly. African rhythms blending perfectly with Cuban music to create a novel delight to the ears and soul. This fusion is not entirely surprising considering the roots of Cuban music are found in the percussion-heavy musical styles native to West Africa. A musical style the slaves who ended up in Cuba took with them.
With ‘Quimbara’, the energetic classic salsa song that tests the endurance of even the most skilled of dancers, Kidjo skillfully turns it into a more languid yet powerful rhythm together with a bridge and chorus that alluringly invites the listener to sway in consonance with the powerful drums and guitar strings. While In ‘Yemaya’ and Elegua, 2 musical prayers to Afro-Cuban deities, Kidjo sets them almost entirely in African beats and throws in some Yoruba as if to appease Nigerians who’d be offended by her win. Highlighting this as also a win for Nigeria/ West Africa albeit not as significant as a Bruna Boy win would have been.
That Kidjo had the temerity to attempt the minefield that is a tribute album to a legend in an entirely different genre is a testament to her own legendary skill and artistry. At great risk of failure, she successfully re-imagined several much-loved songs in a refreshing way while staying true to the original. One music reviewer from NPR describes the album as glorious. I couldn’t agree more.
So here’s what we have in Kidjo’s ‘Celia’, a tribute album by a 3 time Grammy award winner to another Grammy award winner who was the queen of a genre that’s enjoyed by millions of nationalities the world over. A masterful blend of African music that completes the circle of Cuban music that originated in West Africa. To my mind, ‘Celia’ personifies world music and the Grammy voters who are made of American music industry professionals had no choice but to honour it with the pride of place it deserves as world music album of the year. In my eyes, Burna boy is an undisputed African giant, however, in the face of Kidjo’s masterpiece, his album comes up short, a midget in the eyes of the world.